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I’m in a misty wood on the expansive grounds of Hotel Casa di Langa with two young truffle hunters, Marta Menegaldo and Daniele Stroppiana. As the couple’s curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, Bianca and Luna, dash through the underbrush, noses to the ground, toppling over each other in their trembling search for that elusive scent, Daniele tells me says his grandfather first took him in search of a precious white. tartufi in the woods of Roero, sparking a lifelong passion. We are in Le Langhe, a southern pocket of the Italian region of Piedmont. Nowadays, truffle hunting is an almost exclusively male preserve, but back then, at least in Daniele’s family, it was his grandmother who went hunting for mushrooms and truffles while his grandfather was at work. Back in the kitchen, the white truffles that today cost hundreds of euros at Alba’s fall Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba would be thrown into a minestrone “to give it a bit more flavor”.
Handfuls of tartufi bianchi tossed into the family pot: I keep coming back to the image while walking, cycling and driving through the wine areas of Langhe, Monferrato, Roero and Gavi. Southern Piedmont was once a poor, feudal place where foraging was not a back-to-nature experience for wealthy city dwellers, but an essential survival tool. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, two seminal novels by writers born in the Langhe – Cesare Pavese The moon and the bonfires and Beppe Fenoglio Ruin— dwells on the harshness of life in the region. Many rural Piedmontese emigrated to the United States or Argentina; others made the shorter, but no less harrowing, journey to work in the factories of Turin.
And yet today this UNESCO World Heritage Site of outstanding natural beauty, which borders France to the west and Liguria to the south, rivals the hills of Chianti as a poster Italian sweetness of life. The manicured vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco produce some of Italy’s most prized red wines, as do the regions of Asti and Alba, known for Barbera. A glance at the latest Italian edition of the Michelin gastronomic guide reveals a whole nebula of stars in a radius of 25 km around the town of Alba: there were 22 at the last count, spread over 20 restaurants. No other part of the Italian countryside has so many in such a small area. And southern Piedmont is finally getting there in terms of accommodation too. Last year, sustainable development House of Langa and the modern Nordelaia open, providing an upscale base for the strip of wine districts that stretches from Le Langhe to Gavi.
Alba’s pugnacious skyline is bristling with medieval towers (there were once nearly 100), but at ground level this gateway to the Langhe and Roero wine regions is made up of high-end boutiques range, wine bars and delicatessens offering every conceivable variety of cheese, salami, wine, and truffles. Near Bra, another of those pretty Piedmontese towns with flowery charm and a nose for business, is the headquarters of the slow food movement, which was founded here in the 80s.
Roberta Ceretto’s grandfather, Riccardo, moved to Alba in the 1930s from a poor land village in the upper Langhe and found work with a local wine producer. A quick learner, he quickly set up his own winemaking business with grapes that he bought from various winegrowers. It wasn’t until Roberta’s father Bruno and uncle Marcello came on board in the 1960s that Ceretto, now one of the region’s leading producers, began to invest in the vineyards. “Riccardo saw the potential, back when Barolo was still sold in carboys,” Roberta tells me, “but it was the next generation that led the revolution.” We watch the vines planted around the company’s headquarters from L’Acino (“The Grape”), a transparent domed tasting room that juts out from the hillside like the lair of a Bond villain.